It all came down to finishing a chance.
Thank God the Algerians couldn’t finish the few they produced.
And after a handful of U.S. players squandered their relatively easy opportunities, the final one of the match – and, perhaps, the final one of the 2010 World Cup – was fittingly delivered to the best American soccer player…Landon Donovan.
Donovan provided a clinical climax, burying a close-range shot in the 91st minute on Wednesday in South Africa, giving the U.S. a remarkable 1-0 win over Algeria and giving the Americans five points, first-place in Group C, and a Saturday afternoon (2:30pm) date in the event’s equivalent of the Sweet Sixteen.
And make no mistake about it, Wednesday’s win was indeed sweet.
Donovan’s goal – which saved him, frankly, from a lot of harsh evaluation because he had an otherwise forgettable afternoon – also saved the likes of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Edson Buddle, each of whom failed to convert chances that an All-Star in the CYO might have converted.
Altidore’s miss was the most shocking of all, as he volleyed a ball 50 rows into the seats from about 6 yards out late in the first half.
Dempsey followed with a miss from 12 yards out (in all fairness, he hit the post) and botched the rebound for good measure early in the 2nd half and then Buddle’s 6-yard header went directly into the Algerian goalkeeper with 20 minutes remaining.
All the while, the Desert Foxes were content to sit back, absorb the U.S. pressure, and initiate their offensive structure out of the back, where they used the wide side of the field to try and set up mismatches on the counter-attack. It worked only once, and Carlos Bocanegra was there to clear away a dangerous crossing attempt in the 63rd minute. Other than that, the Algerians lacked any kind of system going forward and were lucky to get an early chance that nipped the crossbar after Jay DeMerit misplayed a pass at the top of the 18-yard box and Steve Cherundulo got beat by a step to the loose ball.
The Americans, in need of a win after England beat Slovenia, 1-0, went all-out in the final 30 minutes as Coach Bob Bradley inserted Buddle (for a struggling Maurice Edu) and DaMarcus Beasley (for Jonathan Bornstein) to add fuel to an offense that was time and time again rebuffed by Algerian goalkeeper Rais Bolihi.
Bolihi, by the way, went to the shower afterwards and couldn’t find his nuts. That’s because he played them off in the game. If not for his heroics, Algeria loses 4-0 at least.
There’s also the matter of an early disallowed goal, this time on an offsides call that was clearly – again – suspect at best. After Herculez Gomez failed to convert on a shot from the right side, 10 yards out, he picked up the loose ball and slipped it far post to Dempsey, who re-directed it in for the 1-0 lead. But…of course…the offsides flag was up and the goal was waved off. It wasn’t offsides. But who’s surprised by that?
So on we went, the U.S. in search of a goal and the Algerians merely hoping something would go right for them and they might somehow fluke their way to the next round.
If that sounds a little over the top, it should. The Americans tried to win the game on Wednesday, the Algerians played as if it were golf and the lowest score wins. Now, to tip my hat to the Algerians for a second, once word came that England were set to win their game with Slovenia, it would have been easy for the Foxes to simply pack it in for the final 3 minutes and say, “We played three games in the 2010 World Cup, allowed one goal, and had two ties. We did OK for ourselves”. And they didn’t do that. In fact, the American goal was scored after the Algerians pressed the issue going forward, sending a cross to the left corner of the goalbox that was harmlessly headed to U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. And from there, Howard played the ball to Altidore for the beginning of what was the counter-attack that eventually put the ball on Donovan’s foot for the game-winner.
Still, when you play 270 minutes of soccer and don’t score a goal – which is what Algeria did in three games – you deserve to go home to the desert with your head hung. No excuses. If you can’t score, you can’t win.
The Americans nearly met the same fate on Wednesday, but they were rescued in the waning moments by the kid who has grown up in front of our eyes over the last eight years, Landon Donovan.
Once known as a mercurial, soft, easily distracted midfielder with occasional flair and not much else, Donovan has emerged as this country’s top player in national team competition. He is the engine and the heartbeat and the chef of the kitchen.
And Wednesday, thankfully, the chance that meant the most came to him.
Others failed to deliver in the clutch on Wednesday, but Donovan came through when it mattered most.
In a game that hinged on who could finish their chance, the ball went to the right guy at the right time.
Grading for the U.S. – Algeria game on a 1 (low) to 10 (high) scale —
Tim Howard (7) — Wasn’t asked to do much, but stood his ground on the late counter attack and snared the header that led to his distribution on the game-winning counter-attack.
Carlos Bocanegra (8.5) — Had his best game so far and was the top American performer overall on Wednesday. Made a terrific defensive stop in the 63rd minute that negated what would have been a glorious Algerian scoring chance.
Steve Cherundulo (7) — Looked fatigued in the final 15 minutes but once again served the back-four well and went forward with energy as the U.S. pressed matters late. Has been one of the team’s best players in the 3 games to date.
Jonathan Bornstein (7.5) — Got the start in place of Oguchi Onyewu and was superb, completely justifying Bob Bradley’s faith in him. Was subbed in the 80th minute when the team added Beasley for offensive reasons, but should be considered to start on Saturday for sure.
Jay DeMerit (7.5) — Misplayed the ball early in the game that led to Algeria’s best scoring chance, but other than was a stalwart in the air and had an outstanding second half, particularly in the final stages when the U.S. were playing with only three defenders.
Maurice Edu (6) — Held his own defensively, but was a liability with the ball on his foot and gave it away 4 or 5 times in the first half. Subbed in the 65th minute for Edson Buddle.
Clint Dempsey (7) — Failed to score on several chances but once again battled with grit and determination and got little reward for it. Was the goal-scorer on the disallowed goal and got more involved in the offense when moved up top in the 65th minute.
Landon Donovan (7.5) — Was on his way to a forgettable big-game performance before scoring the game-winner in stoppage time. His effectiveness was somewhat negated by the Algerian defense, which centers on keeping the ball out of the middle of the field.
Michael Bradley (7) — Another workmanlike performance from Bradley, particularly on defense.
Jozy Altidore (7) — Squandered an unthinkably easy chance in the first half, but bullied his way into the mix throughout the second half and helped set up the game-winning goal on the counter attack.
Herculez Gomez (5) — Had a great chance early on and failed to finish. Didn’t offer much after that. Subbed at halftime.
Benny Feilhaber (8) — One of Bradley’s excellent decisions on Wednesday, Feilhaber distributed the ball well and provided several counter-attack set-ups with good delivery and crisp passing.
Edson Buddle (7) — His missed header would have haunted him for a long time if not for Donovan’s heroics. Did more than Gomez, for sure, and probably deserves a start on Saturday based on his willingness to take people on and fight for space in the goalbox.
DaMarcus Beasley (6) — Only got 12 minutes and didn’t do much with it.
Coach Bob Bradley (8.5) — Sat Onyewu and showed faith in Bornstein, a surprise starter to most. That turned out to be a great move. Subbed for Gomez at the 45-minute mark after he failed to break a sweat and was rewarded with Feilhaber’s stylish second half contribution. Showed he was trying to win by sitting Edu and going with Buddle with 30 minutes left and it nearly paid off right away when Buddle had a close-range chance minutes into his role.